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Trash or Treasure? How to Repurpose Would-be Wasted Food to Feed the Hungry and Create Jobs By Alex McKechnie, News Officer
University Communications

“If I offered you a bruised banana, you probably wouldn’t be interested,” said Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, director of Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management. “But what if I offered you some banana ice cream on a hot summer day? I bet you’d find that a lot more appealing.”

It was this simple observation that inspired a new model for recovering would-be wasted – or surplus – food and repurposing it to feed hungry people, generate revenue and even create jobs. The model was recently piloted in West Philadelphia, home to a large population of low-income and food insecure individuals.

Although many supermarkets now donate such surplus foods to soup kitchens or shelters, items like overripe or bruised bananas may still end up in the trash because they are unappealing, even to someone who is food insecure.

“We took a look at what was happening and realized that it was just shifting the problem and not actually solving it,” said Deutsch.

Next, the Drexel Food Lab looked at the food items that were commonly going to waste, such as the bananas, and developed low-cost, limited-skill ways to repurpose these surplus food items.

“As soon as bananas are ripe, they are pulled from supermarket shelves because they’ll be overripe by the time the consumer gets them home and may get thrown in the trash,” he said.  “We took those brown bananas, peeled them, froze them and food processed them to create banana ice cream, which is much more appealing. If we then wholesaled those products back to the grocery store, they could be sold at nearly double the price.”

The pilot program began as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Challenge. Drexel culinary arts and food science students collected thousands of pounds of bruised or misshapen fruits and vegetables from area supermarkets and developed products and recipes in the student-run Drexel Food Lab to put them to better use. These new, more appealing products could then be served or sold, diverting the food items from the landfill and creating a more sustainable food system, dubbed the Food System-Sensitive Methodology (FSSM) by the researcher

Compiled by researchers from Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, Cabrini College and theEnvironmental Protection Agency, the results were published in Food and Nutrition Science, a peer-reviewed international journal dedicated to the latest advancements in food and nutrition sciences. The report alsoprojects the amount of food that could be saved if the program was replicated nationally.

“An important way to address global food security is to make better use of the food already produced,” the researchers wrote. “[The FSSM model] could help relieve chronic hunger and address the cost barriers that prevent these important sources of healthy dietary nutrients from reaching lower income people in the U.S. …The possibility for other foods, such as meats, grains and dairy, to increase diversion of food waste to hunger relief only brightens this outlook.”